How greed, drought, and rampant overdevelopment are sucking Texas dry.
Credit: Photograps by Corey Arnold

Depending on whom you ask, the price to deliver groundwater is five to 10 times greater than for surface water. It costs $1 million per mile just to lay the pipes, not counting what you have to pay property owners for the right to raze their homes. Then there's the cost to treat it for solids and condition it so it doesn't clog your pipes. When you add in the fuel charges to pump it uphill, you've created a resource pricier than oil and surely in shorter supply. In the crudest terms, there's a fortune to be made, and a new class of commodity kings are jockeying to get there first.

It's too soon to know who the winners will be; there are court fights ahead and likely a legislative deal to gut the local boards altogether. But it's clear, even now, who the losers are: any Texas counties not growing at warp speed, and their residents who lack the means to move to cities.

"We're losing this generation of kids down here; they're up and out the door the day school's over," says Buddy Treybig, the Matagorda fisherman who presides over his town and its dying bays. He isn't the mayor of Matagorda (population 700), but he might as well be, practically speaking. He sits on all of its boards, raises the money to feed its poor, and speaks for the coalition of farmers and watermen in this hard-bitten county of 36,000. "Between my two sons, I thought that one of 'em would stay and work this boat with me," he says. "But if you were their age, would you stick around when all your friends are moving north?"

Linda Curtis in Bastrop State Park, the site of a 2011 wildfire that burned 34,000 acres of land. 

He sends me across the bridge to the county seat, Bay City, where Chamber of Commerce executive director Mitch Thames gives me a guided tour of south Texas' post-water future. We drive to see Harley Savage, the 83-year-old foreman of a rice-farming clan that's been here since the 1820s.

"We're five generations, and my grandboys are willing, but this business is done by next year. Been through everything you could think of and came out of it OK, till Austin got so big it took our water."

Returning to Bay City, past shuttered stores that sold equipment and seed to farmers, we pay a call on Joe Crane, who runs a rice-drying plant and has 80 employees he calls family.

"Third year with no water – I've got no choice; we're looking at significant layoffs. Rice farming'll go east, to Mississippi and Tennessee, but we can't move east with it."

We meet Jonathan Fehmel, whose family has been spraying farms in this county since 1948. "We had 20 planes going from dawn to sundown, dusting thousands of acres a day. Now, it's only maybe 1,500 acres that still got water, and we've sold everything but our airstrip. We're trying to lease that, too, if you know someone."

That night, I sit with Treybig over a steak dinner, his mood as bloody as his ribeye.

"I'm up at four in the morning seven days a week, trying to catch enough to keep my oyster plant going, while the governor's out braggin' about the 'Texas Miracle.' We don't need more people, 'less they're bringin' some fuckin' water. What we need's a real miracle: two months of rain."